In the early days of the Internet, nobody knew exactly how to write on these digital walls, so by and large we scribbled graffiti up here — sometimes of monstrous dimensions — and hoped for the best. This was wonderful, in my opinion: early Internet was wild, and irresponsible, and full of overwriting and formal experimentation and seeing what might stick. What made the Internet a rewarding place to write was that if you happened to change your mind about what you wanted to say, you could just hop back online and amend your piece as often as you wanted. This was an marvelous, revelatory thing for those of us who were accustomed to the brutal finality of print, and its liberating power had much to do with the first efflorescence of ‘net literary creativity. The web promised no limitations. A post was something alive and permeable. Pieces of writing were never totally finished, because they never had to be. Print seemed barbaric by comparison.
That changed. Money poured in, and investors sought credibility by mimicking the conventions of offline publications. Websites started to look and feel like the established newspapers and magazines many of us hoped they’d obviate. The early ‘net writers, who weren’t too professional (bless them) about what they were doing, were replaced by actual journalists who led with their integrity. Once they published a post, it almost never changed. It was as if they were still writing in ink, and the screen was an endless scroll of paper, and once words were written, they were seared into the mainframe processors and couldn’t be budged.
You might argue that this is the Internet grown-up; that the Wild West days couldn’t last because that’s not what people want. I look at it a little differently. I see the current state of the Internet as a predictable overreaction to the frightening openness of the first iteration of the web. The present conservatism and conformity of the ‘net strikes me as unsustainable — not because people are craving innovation, but because the sheer volume of possibilities will eventually overwhelm our reservations and force a course correction. The ugly truth is that we’re acting neurotic, and like all neuroses, ours can be cured if we confront it with courage. If a document can be amended, and changed, and pushed around and stretched, and reinterpreted, and multiplied, and blasted into rainbow-colored shards by users, why the hell wouldn’t we do all that, every time? We’re clinging to vestigial forms because we’re comfortable with them, and for no other reason. The pendulum will swing back in the direction of mutability, and it’s going to have consequences for all forms of expression. Writing, and recording, and all the rest of it — sooner or later, it’s all going to get jailbroken.
I have always believed that the people who don’t see a future for the album are confusing the physical artifact, which is doomed, with the essence of the form, which is totally imaginary and therefore immune to technological shifts. Songs just sound too good in sequence and make too many statements when placed next to each other for the album to budge from its place as one of the basic units of consumption for music listeners. The aesthetic and popular success of records like To Pimp A Butterfly and the Donnie Trumpet project and Short Movie, just to name a few examples — all sets made by young musicians — proves to me that artists still believe very much in the album as an optimal carrier of musical and lyrical ideas. That’s probably never going to change. Nevertheless, I believe we’re all still treating the album like something etched into the grooves of a piece of plastic, and therefore fixed forever like a snapshot. I sure could be wrong, but I think this is vestigial, and bound to change soon.
One thing that may disappear, quick, is the release date. As long as there are musicians willing to celebrate their accomplishments, the release party isn’t going anywhere, but it might soon announce the inauguration of a period of changes done in public, Pablo style, instead of a finishing point. A comma, in other words, rather than a period. If an album exists, primarily, on a computer server, there’s no good reason why it wouldn’t be open to reinterpretation by its authors. Suppose, for instance, an album was left intentionally open-ended — the artist makes it public with eight songs, and then continues adding tracks, updating a website regularly, like a webcomic might. That’s not so different from what Kanye just did with The Life Of Pablo — he introduced it with a bunch of tracks, some of which had already leaked, and then pulled it back and added a bunch more. He was ridiculed for this, and the way he did it made the project look sloppy and incomplete. But what if he’d said from the start that he reserved the right to release Pablo slowly, over time, and make alterations while his fans watched? Some of those fans might have lost interest, but I think others would’ve be intrigued by the experiment.
Our popular model of an artist who can’t leave well enough alone is George Lucas, who keeps screwing with Star Wars movies that were fixed in the public imagination decades ago. We don’t like what Lucas is doing with his own creation; his autoapostasy has engendered a whole industry of second-second-guessers who believe they know better what’s appropriate to the Star Wars universe. But regardless of my feelings about whether Han Shot First, I have come to believe that Lucas, too, is ahead of the curve here. And now I’m giving you nightmares about a senescent Roger Waters adding a Netanyahu beef track to an album as seamless as The Dark Side Of The Moon. But what about the thousands and thousands of albums that aren’t The Dark Side Of The Moon? It’s the very rare set that wouldn’t benefit from an after-the-fact editorial revision or tracklist shuffle. In days of yore, if Andy Partridge wanted to add “Dear God” to Skylarking (not that he necessarily should have), that required an additional pressing and shipping and all the associated record company expenditures and accompanying guilt trips. When it’s as easy as clicking a mouse, why the heck wouldn’t you click that mouse? Convention is the only thing staying the artist’s hand.
There is probably a point at which even the most resolute tinkerer would cease monkeying with a project, because he’d moved on to different themes and concerns, and the time had come for a new conceptual frame for his work. Part of the reason we don’t accept the Lucas revisions of Star Wars is because he feels like a totally different man now than the space hellion he was in 1977, and how could he not be?, that was forty damn years ago. But that’s a call for the critics to make. Artists can go ahead and kickstart the process by bending some rules. For instance, what’s to stop an established musician from announcing that everything she intends to post on her website in the year 2016 constitutes a single album? She’d introduce some songs to general circulation in January, and maybe she’d amend them in February, add a few in March, remix it all in April, upload videos in May, and etcetera? Or add or amend a song every week for fifty-two weeks? Come December, she could put a bow on it, call it a completed work, and begin afresh with a new album in 2017. I think her fans would find that very exciting. Wouldn’t you tune in for regular updates to Superpablo? I know I would.
Likewise, I think there’s a very good chance that album sequencing is going to open up, too. The single-sequence album is, once again, prisoner to physical realities that don’t really apply anymore: every song had a specific position on a reel of tape, and that position had to be determined by the artist and producer and the tracks couldn’t budge once they were dedicated. Many musicians put a tremendous amount of time and thought into the sequencing of their tracks, and that’s understandable — the order in which songs are presented to the listener is a non-negligible part of the experience of the album. But there’s nothing that says the musicians couldn’t present fans with two sequences, or twenty-two, or, for that matter, they could give them none at all and encourage them to choose their own adventure. Some progressive rock sets are so linear that the song order can’t really be fudged — I’m thinking of Scarlet’s Walk now, but there are a few others. But the vast majority of albums — even concept albums — are linked by theme and tone and don’t necessarily follow a straight narrative. King Of America is an extremely coherent album, but I bet Elvis Costello could shuffle that deck and deal all kinds of winning hands. A future release could have an artist-sanctioned, “official” sequence supplemented by alternate sequences, or different sequences meant to suit different moods. Albums could be designed to accommodate various sequencing: a set of twenty tracks could be broken down into two sequences with separate titles, and those might contain subsequences, like Russian nesting dolls. All this seems inevitable to me. Artists love the ambiguity of forking paths.
Most radically of all, I think the new digital conditions of musical production are bound to prompt a redrawing of the dividing line between the artist and her listener. I can imagine an album in the not-so-distant future released unfinished and incomplete, along with a set of instructions left for you to fill in the blanks. Wouldn’t you be compelled by that? Say Paul McCartney put out an album of stems and vocal tracks, and provided you with the tools and codes to do the rest. Remixers have been working like this for many, many years, but they’ve usually taken tracks that are already complete and they’ve turned them inside out. An officially authorized incomplete release — a coloring book — would make every listener into a potential remixer. Now that nearly everybody has an audio suite on their computer, it’s only a matter of time before an enterprising artist figures out how to release music directly to the software, and also how to allow fans to upload their versions to a central clearinghouse. Q: are the original stems the album, or is that collaborative website the album, or is the album something in between? A: Yes, and yes, and yes; it’s all the album. The album was and is bigger than anybody realized. We’ve only begun to probe its parameters.
All of this is contingent on the continued migration of the album to the Internet. Which is something that’s not going to make everybody happy, I realize; independent artists lost a very valuable tool for self-promotion when the CD became obsolete. Barring a technological meltdown that isn’t going to happen, those days aren’t coming back, so I figure it’s better to light a single computer screen than curse the darkness. I will save my feelings about Spotify and other streaming services for another post, but it’s safe to assume that if Taylor Swift and Joanna Newsom agree about something, I’m going to agree about it, too. But I don’t think that just because record companies are allowing a bunch of Swedes to royally screw their artists means that technological change and the decoupling of the album from its physical form spells doom for professional musicians. That’s how the cookie is crumbling at the moment, but there’s no reason we can’t turn it around if we’re willing to get creative, stand up for our rights, and maybe tell some of these parasites to take a hike. It would really grease the gears of change if artists embrace the creative commons license and release their music for free, but I am aware man cannot live on barre chords alone. I just hope we all realize that there’s no contradiction between experimentation and enterprise. Reality may or may not be silly putty, but the album definitely is — so let’s stretch it, and pull it, and press it into strange shapes, and roll it up and mash it down, and use it to copy the funnies.